I have a confession to make, though it pains me to admit it: I never really got into Mass Effect. I dabbled a bit, but didnâ€™t stick with it long enough to become truly hooked. Having just come off a full-on gaming bender with the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2, I can see Iâ€™ll have to revisit the original â€“ if only to round out the experience while waiting for the third instalment to arrive.
Compelling story lines and a flair for the dramatic are Biowareâ€™s signature dish, be it in the realms of fantasy or science fiction, and this is one out of the box. The intrigue laden plot is deep and populated by memorable, convincing characters â€“ often burdened with unfinished business or emotional baggage.
For those who didnâ€™t play Mass Effect (for whatever reason), an interactive comic provides a tidy summary of key events leading up to ME2â€™s turbulent kick-off. Itâ€™s both entertaining and informative, supplying enough information for you to forge ahead with confidence. There were occasions during the game when playing the original wouldâ€™ve been advantageous, to flesh out the history behind some of the characters. For everything else, thereâ€™s an onboard codex to provide comprehensive information and background for planets, races, politics, technology and equipmentâ€¦ pretty much anything you ever needed to know about the Mass Effect universe. Whatâ€™s really impressive is that each entry is delivered verbally as well as textuallyâ€¦ what a mammoth undertaking!
The gameâ€™s setting and story have been covered already in our ME2 reviews, for PC and 360; however that was over a year ago, so a quick refresher wouldnâ€™t hurt: Two years on from a violent encounter that destroyed both ship and self, Commander Shepard finds himself recruited by Cerberus, a shady, xenophobic organisation to which he owes his survival. An alien race known as the Collectors has been abducting colonists for purposes unknown (but obviously nefarious), and Shepard is tasked with finding and eliminating this new threat. Equipped with a shiny new vessel and physical enhancements â€“ courtesy of Cerberus - Shepard sets out to recruit another crack team of specialists to do just that.
A simple character creation process allows you to choose your gender and personalise Shepardâ€™s appearance, profession and backgroundâ€¦ or you can simply import your character from the previous game. With the exception of one possible ending, youâ€™ll also be able to carry this character across to ME3, so bear in mind that everything you do in the game will influence your future experience. During play you will have many opportunities to take compassionate (Paragon) or ruthless (Renegade) actions, earning morality points to unlock extra dialogue options and affect cut scenes directly. This, along with the many in-game variables is incentive enough to play through the game a couple of times, trying both the â€˜good copâ€™ and â€˜bad copâ€™ personas, to see how they affect the outcome.
The in-game radial menus are simple to navigate, whether you are simply holding a conversation or making tactical decisions in the thick of combat. Once you have familiarised yourself with the controls you will barely have to spare them a thought, leaving you free to immerse yourself in the game. Even though ME2 is technically an RPG, combat plays out like a fast paced, third person shooter... and a good one at that. Enemies are smart enough to make good use of cover as well as their class abilities, and will actively try to flank you. The only respite from the action is when you switch out weapons or activate powers (which pauses the game), or your enemies lie in charred ruins at your feet.
Successful missions and side quests reward you and your squad with XP, and thereâ€™s a modest amount of choices when it comes to upgrading your skills. By RPG standards, levelling up in ME2 is a pared back, streamlined process, but if you have neither the time nor inclination for such matters thereâ€™s an option to auto assign skill points â€“ both to Shepard and his squad. This should please gamers who may shy away from RPGs because of their reputation for tedious number crunching and character tweaking.
Rocking up to other systems and plundering their unexplored planets provides resources for tech and gear upgrades, and occasionally an interesting side quest. The change of pace contrasts nicely to the adrenaline-fuelled intensity of fire fights, and you can spend as much or as little time on it as you wish. I spent over 35 hoursâ€™ playing time on the game overall, with a goodly portion being devoted to this R&D aspect.
Visually, you know youâ€™re in for a treat from the very first cut scene. The entire game has a heavily cinematic feel to it, with edgy, creative use of camera angles and focusing techniques, as well as added touches such as lens flares and ambient lighting for added drama. Character expressions, movement and mannerisms are remarkably lifelike, and so too are the many environments youâ€™ll visit. Attention to detail spills over into the background, to those lesser sights and sounds you may not immediately appreciate or notice, but which help breathe life into each setting. From the lush surroundings of a primordial forest, to the grungy, garbage filled bowels of a mercenary stronghold, to personalised advertising on the Citadel (marketing strategists take note!); itâ€™s all very impressive. Load screens aside, the only real interference to the gameâ€™s seamless flow came in the form of that dreaded game freeze, which happened several times while I was playing. No loss of data, but an unwanted interruption nonetheless.
Thereâ€™s an enormous amount of dialogue in the game, but you wonâ€™t have to wade through pages and pages of text. The textual components are brief and merely convey the gist of the conversation. Once youâ€™ve selected your response it is expanded on verbally, which helps keep your head in the game and your eyes on the screen. Most of the voice talent is spot on (Seth Green is fantastic as the irreverent Joker); although there were a couple of characters whose performances were lacklustre, or just plain annoying. Incidental music runs the gamut from grandiose orchestral compositions to techno, and is a fitting accompaniment to the circumstances, be it fighting mercenary scum or hanging out at the nightclub.
Another deal sweetener is the good selection of bonus DLC, which adds value to the overall package. In addition to having additional armour, weaponry etc. at your disposal, youâ€™ll also gain access to new missions and squad members. Itâ€™s a sizable download but well worth getting.
Mass Effect 2 definitely deserves the accolades it has been receiving, and you will want to play it through twice - whether to try out Shepardâ€™s other gender option, or to rethink some of the critical decisions you made first time around. I can honestly say I havenâ€™t been this captivated by an RPG since The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and have joined the legion of fans eagerly awaiting the third instalment.